Category: La Mancha.

A stroll through La Mancha

Explore the magic mix of cultural styles in Cuenca, the unconquerable city, and tour beautiful Toledo, for 1,000 years an artistic and cultural centre, through the eyes of its greatest artist, El Greco

William Cook,

The footbridge to Cuenca over the Huecar river. Photograph: Cozzi Guido/4Corners Images

The footbridge to Cuenca over the Huecar river. Photograph: Cozzi Guido/4Corners Images

Standing above the vast ravine that winds its way around Cuenca, you can see why the Spaniards used to call this the unconquerable city. This ancient citadel is perched on a steep rocky peak, high above the surrounding plain, and the treacherous gorge below encircles the city like a moat. But this is the deepest moat you’ve ever seen, a giddy drop of several hundred feet, with nothing beneath you to break your fall. As I cross the narrow bridge into the old town, I try my best not to look down.

In the centre of a sparsely populated province, midway between Valencia and Madrid, Cuenca is often overlooked by British travellers, but that could be about to change. A new high-speed rail link, due to open next year, will cut the train journey to Madrid from around three hours to under an hour. In the meantime, if you’re driving, it’s less than two hours by road from the Spanish capital to a city that’s full of history, but still largely undiscovered by foreign tourists. They don’t know what they’re missing. Arriving here from Madrid feels like stepping into another world.

On my first morning in Cuenca I meet up with Kate Jetmore, who’s going to show me the city. She’s American, but she’s lived here for seven years. She came to Spain to follow the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, fell in love with a man from Cuenca, married him, and moved here to live with him. She’s glad she ended up here, rather than somewhere on the coast.

Despite its Unesco world heritage status, most visitors here are Spaniards, and so Cuenca has retained its Spanish way of life. “People live by the rhythm of the seasons,” she tells me. “When it’s too hot to work you don’t work.” I’m glad we’re just sightseeing. It feels far too hot to do any work today.

We start our tour outside the castle, at the top of the old town. Before they built the modern footbridge that gave me such a bad attack of vertigo, the castle was the only way in or out, so Cuenca was fairly easy to defend. In 1177, when King Alfonso’s Christian soldiers took this city from the Moors, they decided to starve them out, rather than trying to storm these ramparts. It took the best part of a year. Cuenca finally fell in September, on St Matthew’s Day. Locals still mark the date by running bulls around the main square.

The Moors were here for over 400 years, from the early 8th century to the late 12th century, and more than 800 years after they were defeated their Islamic legacy endures. With its claustrophobic alleys, hemmed in by tall faceless houses, the old town still feels a lot like a Moroccan medina. The clock tower used to be a minaret, the last remnant of the old mosque. It’s easy to picture an imam up there, calling Cuenca’s Muslims to their evening prayers. Eight centuries after the Reconquest, Africa still feels close at hand.

Cuenca grew rich during the Renaissance, on trade between the Mediterranean and Madrid, and the old town (Ciudad Antigua) is a glorious relic of this golden age. At its centre is the cathedral, constructed in a curious melange of architectural styles, from Anglo-Norman to Iberian Gothic – rather apt for a city with such an eclectic past. Inside is a bulky statue of the Last Supper (including an extremely grumpy looking Judas) which is carried around town every Easter by a troupe of 70 men. Whether it’s bulls or religious icons, ritual remains an important part of daily life around here.

The buildings around the cathedral are similarly old and grand, but Cuenca is a small city, and it’s easy to find your way around. Anywhere in the Ciudad Antigua you’re never far from the medieval walls, and the view from these battlements has hardly changed. Little allotments line the riverbed. Lavender and rosemary grow wild on the parched hillside beyond.

“One thing I love about Cuenca is that you have to see it on foot,” says Kate, as she leads me through its winding sidestreets. In a city with so many layers of history, each house has a tale to tell. We stop at the Posada de San José. Velázquez used to come here, to visit his daughter, who lived here. Later, this building became the cathedral choir school. Now it’s an intimate hotel. The proprietor, Jennifer Morter, shows us around. She was born in Britain, but she’s been here a long time and it’s hard to place her accent. Even when she’s speaking English she talks with a Castilian lisp. Expats tend to go native in Cuenca. You won’t find any British pub grub here.

We finish our tour in the Hanging Houses of Cuenca, a pair of 15th-century buildings built into the side of the cliff face. Since the 1960s these Hanging Houses have housed the Spanish Museum of Abstract Art, a stunning gallery devoted to a group of artists who found a refuge from Franco in this archaic city, and these evocative works of art. “When you see the work, knowing the background, there’s no question what’s being expressed,” says Kate, as we stand before a canvas covered in angry black strokes, streaked with bloody red. But because the message was oblique, the authorities would turn a blind eye, so these pictures, and this gallery, survived. The views from the museum are even more arresting. Looking out across the ravine that runs around the city, each window is like a landscape painting. The cliffs look like sculptures. As I cross the footbridge, leaving the citadel behind me, I can hear the wind humming between the boulders down below.

The real Spain

The next day I’m bound for Toledo but I don’t have to be there until nightfall. It’s only a few hours away so I’m keen to see some of La Mancha on the way. Plenty of people pass through La Mancha en route to Toledo, but not many people stop off there. For most travellers, it’s simply somewhere on the way to somewhere else. Consequently, its towns and villages are remarkably unspoilt. If you want to see the real Spain, this is the place to come.

La Mancha has always been a blind spot on the tourist map of Spain. When Cervantes set Don Quixote here it was already a byword for nowhere, an obscure backwater where nothing ever happens, and 400 years since he wrote his comic masterpiece, not a lot has changed. All the better. This is the last place you’ll see a coach party, so it’s the best part of Spain to head for if you want to get off the tourist trail. First impressions aren’t all that promising. The arid terrain is flat and featureless – hot and dry in summer, cold and windswept in winter – but its barren beauty is bewitching, and tucked away off the main highway are some hidden gems.

Last time I came this way I went via Almagro and Consuegra (Almagro for its antique theatre, Consuegra for its iconic windmills) but this time I decide to go via a historic town called Huete and a bodega called El Pago de Calzadilla. The winemaker, Alfonso Torrente, takes some time out to show me round. He’s from Galicia, well known for its subtle whites, yet he’s full of enthusiasm for these fiery reds, and I soon find out why he’s so keen.

La Mancha wine used to have a solid but unremarkable reputation – reliable table wine, but not much more – yet lately, things have changed. This small bodega is a good example of the new vineyards that are raising standards across the region, producing wines that can compete with Rioja, as well as vintages from abroad. With only 20 hectares under cultivation, Calzadilla produces no more than 70,000 bottles a year, but quality not quantity is the watchword here. Aged in oak barrels for at least a year, these wines are sold as far afield as America and Japan, but not in Britain – not yet, at any rate. A bottle will cost you at least €15 in Germany, but you can buy one for as little as €10 if you come to Huete. Alfonso grows the local grapes – tempranillo and garnacha – but imports like syrah have also flourished here. “The grape has adapted to this area very well,” he says, as he leads me through the cellars. Back upstairs, we try a few. He’s quite right. They’re full of Spanish sunshine. They go down great with Manchego, the tangy local cheese.


Next morning, in Toledo, I meet Almudena Cencerrado, my guide from the Toledo tourist office. I’ve been to the city twice before, and fell in love with it both times, but it is so dense it feels like a different destination every time. Half the fun is getting hopelessly lost in its labyrinthine backstreets. However this time I want to find out a bit more about Toledo’s rich history, and I could hardly have found a better person to show me round. Almudena is an art historian, and the best way to see Toledo is through the eyes of its greatest artist, El Greco.

Ironically for an artist who’s become synonymous with Spain, El Greco (as his name suggests) wasn’t Spanish at all, but Greek. He was born in Crete in 1541, and studied in Italy under Titian. From Italy he was invited to Toledo, to paint a brand new chapel in the Convent of Santo Domingo de Antiguo, and it’s in this chapel, at the top of the old town, that we begin our tour.

El Greco’s paintings are a strange mixture of Byzantine and Renaissance, but this exotic blend of primitive and modern proved a perfect fit for Toledo. El Greco’s art was sophisticated yet elemental, a lot like Spain. He also had the good luck to arrive here during Toledo’s cultural and economic heyday. There was a huge demand for religious art, and plenty of cash to spend.

El Greco never left Toledo. He spent the rest of his life here, and rather than all being crowded into one museum, his dreamlike paintings remain scattered around the places where he painted them. Tracking them all down is a great way to see the city.

Our next stop is the church of Santo Tomé, which houses one of El Greco’s greatest paintings, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. It’s a dazzling display, full of intense portraits, framed by a surreal view of heaven, closer to Picasso than Velásquez. It’s incredible to think it’s 400 years old.

Until the 16th century, Toledo was the Spanish capital, and it remains Spain’s religious capital to this day. Its crowning glory is its cathedral, which contains one of the most amazing rooms in western art. The sacristy is like a miniature Prado Museum, with paintings by Caravaggio, Goya, Raphael, Rubens, Titian and Van Dyck, plus more than a dozen El Grecos, all squeezed into one small room. “It’s really modern,” says Almudena, pointing out a penetrating portrait of St Peter. “Look how he portrays suffering.” The picture of St Luke beside it is actually a self-portrait. El Greco was born on St Luke’s Day.

We wind up our city tour in the Hospital de Tavera. This is a mansion, not a hospital, and it’s one of the architectural highlights of the city, with a palatial courtyard, a precious library, an old apothecary and a spooky crypt. It’s the only El Greco site that’s outside the city walls, so you get a good view of the old town from here. El Greco painted his classic cityscape from the tower. There are several El Grecos in here, including the last picture he ever painted (he died before he could finish it) but my favourite is his Sagrada Familia, a tender depiction of the Holy Family with El Greco as Joseph, his wife as Mary and his son as Baby Jesus. “As you get to know El Greco, you love him more and more,” says Almudena.

“Toledo is the door to La Mancha,” says Almudena, before we say goodbye, and though I’m on my return journey to Madrid, I wish I was headed back across La Mancha to Cuenca.

Bodeguilla de Basilio, Cuenca (00 34 969 235 274)

Posada de San Jose (00 34 969 211 300;

Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol (00 34 969 212 983;

Pago de Calzadilla (00 34 969 143 020;

Convento de Santo Domingo (00 34 925 222 30;

Iglesia de Santo Tomé (00 34 925 256 098;

S.I. Catedral Primada de Toledo (00 34 925 222 241;

Hospital Tavera (00 34 925 220 451;

Enchanted countryside

One of the best things about Cuenca is its proximity to proper countryside – just a short drive from the city centre, you’re in one of the biggest forests in Spain. This woodland wilderness is home to wolves, lynx and foxes, and all sorts of birds of prey.

It’s also the site of some extraordinary rock formations – massive limestone boulders, carved into weird anthropomorphic shapes by the wind and rain. These accidental sculptures are scattered all over this remote region, but the most popular site is La Ciudad Encantada (the Enchanted City) where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cult movie, Conan The Barbarian, was filmed.

An even better spot is Los Callejones (the Little Streets), a wilder site with no signage and no entrance fee. Here the landscape feels prehistoric, without a trace of civilisation to be seen. On your way back to Cuenca, be sure to stop at the Ventana del Diablo – or Devil’s Window – another limestone curio with a fine view of the river valley far below.

If you’ve a bit more time to spare you can drive on to the source of the Rio Cuervo, a pretty waterfall in an idyllic forest glade. It’s about an hour’s drive from Cuenca (allow around half an hour to reach Los Callejones) but if you don’t want to stray so far from the city there’s plenty of nature on your doorstep. The Rio Jucar runs along the city walls and out into open countryside, with plenty of super places for swimming and canoeing on the way. You can walk beside the riverbank, or ride the cycle path that runs for 8km alongside it. I hired a bike in Cuenca and did the 16km round trip in an hour, but if you want to stop and swim you can quite happily spend all day here.

• For more info visit

Sweet treats of Toledo

It’s nearly a thousand years since the Castilians took Toledo from the Moors, but many Moorish traditions have survived, and one of the most seductive is its delicious marzipan. Brought to Toledo as an Islamic delicacy in the 8th century, it became a Christian treat after the Reconquest, long before Columbus brought chocolate back from America. Toledo is full of shops that sell it, and one of the best places to buy some is Santo Tomé.

Santo Tomé has been going strong since 1856, and it’s still owned and run by the same family. They sell their own marzipan in the front of the shop and make it out the back. Rafael Agudo has worked here for 36 years. He shows me how it’s done. He washes 25kg of Spanish almonds (grown in the Levante and Catalonia) and then adds 20kg of sugar, 2kg of honey and three litres of water. Once it’s set he runs it through granite rollers and leaves it to harden for a day. Then, with a little scalpel, he starts to sculpt some of the marzipan he made the day before, carving this thick paste into a scaly snake – an age-old design (the scales were made to reassure Jewish customers that this marzipan was kosher). Rafael doesn’t just do snakes. In the shop window there’s a marzipan model of one of Toledo’s grandest buildings, the Hospital de Santa Cruz.

You can also buy homemade marzipan in some of Toledo’s many convents, a bizarre and poignant business, since a lot of these orders are closed and the elderly nun who serves you may have been at the convent for 50 years. At the Iglesia del Salvador, just around the corner from Santo Tome, a nun sells you marzipan through a grill in the wall. The tower of this convent was built way back the 8th century. It used to be a minaret, one of the oldest in the world. Shopping for marzipan is a great way to see Toledo. And it’s a reminder that Spain’s ancient capital is still a world away from modern Spain.

• Santo Tomé (00 925 223 763;
Paradores in Toledo and Cuenca

Paradores are such a good idea, you wonder why nobody outside Iberia has ever thought to copy them – a state run firm that manages smart hotels and charges reasonable prices, without any unnecessary five-star frills. A lot of them are situated in historic buildings, and even in the more modern ones you’re guaranteed decent service and fine food. Toledo’s Parador is a big newbuild in the hills, a few kilometres out of town, with a wonderful view of the city. Cuenca’s Parador enjoys even better views, in a 16th century convent a few minutes’ walk from the old town. Both Paradores have good restaurants and nice outdoor swimming pools, and both of them make ideal bases for sightseeing, or simply winding down.

• Paradores: (00 34 91 516 6666;

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Category: La Mancha
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